Tag Archives: Columbus Day

Thinking About “Columbus Day”


Monday, October 13 is Columbus Day across the United States.  However, not everyone feels like celebrating the “discovery” of continents where well-developed civilizations already existed.  In Minneapolis, where I spend a lot of time, the City Council voted in April 2014 to substitute “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” for Columbus Day.

Thinking about controversies surrounding Christopher Columbus, I went back and watched a great film, The Mission. The British film was made in 1986 from a script by Robert Bold, directed by Roland Joffe. It won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and an Academy award for cinematography.  It’s a somewhat-fictionalized version of events that actually took place in the 1750s, in the mountains of Paraguay. The story is taken from the book “The Lost Cities of Paraguay” by Father C. J. McNaspy, S.J., who was also a consultant on the film. For me, the story dramatizes some of the heartbreaking conflicts between missionaries and politicians in the colonial period. Conflicts surrounding the exploitation of native lands and peoples continue in our time.


The main character, Father Gabriel, is played by Jeremy Irons.  The character is based on a real-life Paraguayan Jesuit, Father Roque Gonzalez de Santa Cruz, who became a saint. After a priest in his charge is martyred by a Guarani tribe above a perilous waterfall, Father Gabriel climbs up the steep stone face carrying nothing but a flute.  Warriors surround him as he sits on a rock and plays.  It turns out they love music; they let him stay, and he develops a mission that helps them in material as well as spiritual ways. They are not exploited. Instead, they prosper.

The outside world arrives in the form of a mercenary soldier played by Robert de Niro. He has a lucrative sideline in the slave trade.  He sets a huge net as a trap in the jungle; soon he has a netful of tribe members, and he hauls them off like so many rabbits, to be sold into slavery. Soon afterward, he murders his brother in a jealous rage. Although he is acquitted, he experiences remorse for the first time in his life.  Father Gabriel, on a visit to the city, challenges the mercenary to atone for his sins and change his life.  As penance, the mercenary hauls his net, loaded with all his armor and possessions, tied to a rope and dragging behind him.  He climbs up to the mission above the falls, fully expecting to be shunned or even killed.  He is amazed and humbled when the tribe members forgive and welcome him; over time, he becomes a Jesuit himself. Liam Neeson is excellent as a young Jesuit, in one of his earliest roles.

The rest of the movie concerns further encroachments of the outside world.  Father Gabriel’s mission–and six others like it–are under the protection of Spain, which outlaws slavery.  In 1750, the Treaty of Madrid gives part of Paraguay to Portugal, which encourages slavery. Suddenly, the missions are ordered to close. The Church cannot risk allowing the Jesuits to violate the treaty; the Spanish could shut down their order entirely if they resist. Other religious orders could be barred from the colonies.

Father Gabriel and his Jesuits have to make agonizing choices.  A joint army from Portugal and Spain is ordered to clear out the missions in Portuguese territory. Should the missionaries abandon their mission and the Guarani people they have come to love?  Should they help the Guarani resist, using modern warfare techniques?  Should they resort to peaceful resistance? Would peaceful resistance have any chance? If not, should they sacrifice themselves by trying peaceful resistance anyway?

"The Mission" poster

“The Mission” poster

The film is available at Amazon. The story of the colonization of the “New World” is complex, The great colonial powers of England, Spain, France, and Portugal set out explicitly to exploit whatever they found in the “New World,” people and resources alike. But the members of the various religious orders set out for the colonies with a sincere desire to improve the lives of the people, however misguided their methods were at times.  They were able to do a lot of good that remains to this day. A film like “The Mission” invites us to share in the moral quandaries of times past, and to think about those of the modern world.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!




Columbus Day

No American holiday is as controversial as Columbus Day.  Over 500 years after Christopher Columbus’s voyage to what was then the “New World,” celebrations often turn into protests.  Since Christopher Columbus was from Genoa in what is now Italy, Italian-Americans use the holiday to celebrate their heritage. Native Americans and others decry the exploitation of their peoples by the European colonizers.  We can all give some thought to history today. I am repeating some material from a previous post of mine for Columbus Day.

Remember the ditty, “In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue?” Just two years after Christopher Columbus’s  voyage, in the year 1494, the Renaissance artist Pinturicchio apparently added images of the Native Americans described by Columbus to a fresco in the Vatican. Columbus called the people he met “Indians” because he mistakenly believed he had reached the East Indies, source of coveted treasure like silk and spices.

Detail of fresco showing Native Americans
Detail of fresco showing Native Americans

News reports on the frescoes vary.  Either the images were more or less overlooked for the past 500 years, or they were uncovered in a recent cleaning of the fresco. The images are difficult to see.  They appear at the top of the open tomb.

Pinturicchio "Resurrection of Christ"
Pinturicchio “Resurrection of Christ”

The fresco, titled “Resurrection of Christ,” was commissioned for the rooms to be occupied by the newly-elected Pope Alexander VI.  This Pope was the former Spanish cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, so his rooms came to be called the “Borgia Apartments.” All the great powers in Europe at the time were much interested in the so-called “New World.” Of course, we now know that a big part of the interest in “the New World” was in exploiting the people and the riches to be found there.  But seeing this fresco gives us a little insight into the excitement in Europe over the new discoveries.  And over time, after many mistakes and abuses, a “New World” of freedom and democracy really was created.

I first read about this discovery in The New York Times, http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/05/06/early-images-of-american-indians-found-in-a-vatican-fresco/. I have to thank Kathy Schiffer, in her blog “Seasons of Grace,” for coming up with the full image of the fresco.  Her article is at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/kathyschiffer/2013/04/first-ever-painting-of-native-americans-discovered-in-the-vatican/.

Today, in the midst of a government shutdown frustrating to everyone, the Statue of Liberty has reopened.  The reopening is timely.  In spite of grievous mistakes made by our country, past and present, and by European colonizers in the past, the United States still stands as a land of freedom and opportunity. The Statue of Liberty is still a cherished symbol of what America offers. An article about the reopening is at http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/14/nyregion/statue-of-liberty-reopens-as-other-sites-stay-empty.html?_r=0.